When Betty White celebrated her 89th birthday on Jan. 17 -- surrounded by her "Hot in Cleveland" co-stars and serenaded by Justin Bieber, no less -- she said she had no plans to retire.
She's one of the most beloved of stars, with seven Emmys, including one for hosting "Saturday Night Live" last May. At this point in life, she doesn't need to challenge herself or prove anything. Yet, in Hallmark Hall of Fame's "The Lost Valentine," she takes on an uncharacteristic dramatic role, and she's excellent.
She plays Caroline Thomas, an 85-year-old woman whose husband, Neil, a U.S. Navy pilot, went missing in action near Bataan in World War II. Caroline was 20 and pregnant when Neil went to war. When he was on a train leaving Union Station, she gave him a handmade valentine, which he promised to keep close to him.
Caroline never remarried. Every year on Valentine's Day, for more than 60 years, she has made a pilgrimage to Union Station, where her husband had promised to return. She sits quietly on a bench and remembers, and she's befriended staff over the years.
Caroline volunteers every Saturday at a Veterans Administration hospital, and she says at one point, "I'm from a generation who honors service -- to our country, to each other. Maybe that sounds old-fashioned to a lot of people."
It would seem old-fashioned to Susan, a TV journalist played by Jennifer Love Hewitt ("The Ghost Whisperer"). The reluctant and cynical Susan is assigned to do a news segment about Caroline. As she comes to admire and even love Caroline, she also starts falling for the woman's grandson (Sean Faris), a physical therapist who has his grandmother's warmth and empathy.
At first Caroline has trepidation about doing Susan's TV show, but when she decides to do it, she wants to do it immediately. One lesson she learned from World War II: Don't waste any time.
Much of the story, based on a novel by James Michael Pratt, is told in flashback, with Meghann Fahy as young Caroline and Billy Magnussen as Neil. There's some laugh-out-loud humor in their courtship. But we also know that Neil will go missing, and feelings are obviously being manipulated, not in a good way.
Fortunately, however, the present-day plot soars in the last half hour, and it goes places that few viewers will see coming. Susan and her former boyfriend, a fellow journalist, discover what really happened to Neil more than 65 years ago -- and it's a great story. The resolution is satisfying and very moving.
When Betty White is on screen, the emotions are real, and she's on screen a lot. It's a safe bet that tears will be shed.
Jim Heinrich: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-263-1851.